The second sermon in a series on the Apostles’ Creed. In the writing of this sermon I have benefitted from, and in some ways followed, a Father’s Day sermon that Karla Wubbenhorst (minister, Westminster, St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, Guelph) has offered on the Fatherhood of God. I have also followed reflections on the Creed’s identification of God as Father offered by Luke Timothy Johnson in his book on the Creed.
I believe in God the Father…
As we explore these opening words of the Creed today, I’d actually like to begin by saying just a few words about my own father. I do this for the very simple reason that our discussion of God as father often begins, for better or worse, with the experiences we have had with our own fathers.
In describing my father, I would say he has always been in some sense old school and old country. He came to Canada as a young man, and there has certainly been firmness and a sense of discipline in his identity and role as father to me and my sisters – that’s what I mean by old school and old country. At the same time there has been in him a sense of fun and adventure – taking us places, teaching us new things. Above all I would say that he has loved us – not with a perfect love, not with a sappy love, but with a love that looks out for us and encourages us. He’s made mistakes with us (and no doubt I follow in his footsteps in that respect), but those mistakes don’t take away from his identity as a loving father.
But of course my experience in relation to my father is not the only experience out there. It is perhaps obvious to say that each of us has a unique experience in relation to our father. And the truth is that some of us have had strained or even difficult relationships with our fathers. Fathers, like everyone else (like mothers, like siblings, like friends), can fail, and sometimes do so spectacularly. Perhaps even among us there are some whose fathers were abusive, whose father’s caused them very real grief and pain.
With this in mind, some within the Church have argued that we should no longer refer to God as Father – for example the hymnbooks of a few denominations have eliminated all references to God as father. It is said that those who have had negative experiences with Fathers will be alienated by our identification of God as father. It is also argued that identifying God as a father will conjure up for them ideas about God that are not true to the identity of God.
While we’re on this subject, we could mention a second objection that is sometimes offered to the identification of God as father. Some find the identification of God as Father inappropriate or offensive because they say that it perpetuates the dominance of the male over the female, of men over women. Mary Daly, a feminist philosopher and theologian, puts it like this “If God is male, then the male is God.” In other words, when the Apostles’ Creed refers to God as Father it repeats the dominance of the male. As long as God is father, it is argued, then all things male will be valued and all things female will be devalued.
Now it is very easy to get caught up with, preoccupied with, all of the complaints and objections offered against what we confess. As I have suggested previously, we want to acknowledge and respond to the concerns of those who live around us, but we don’t want to become preoccupied with their concerns and questions – above all we want to follow Christ and to listen to what has been revealed to us in Jesus and in his story – we want to live and think positively in relation to our faith, not negatively.
Indeed, we have to realize that some who object to parts of our faith do so because they are keen to dismiss everything about Christianity. But some raise concerns out of a deep and honest concern for how we think about the God we worship and serve – or with an earnest worry about things we say about God or about the world.
Thus we acknowledge that there are those who may have some difficulty in relating to God as a father, because of their experiences. And the church in its history has been implicated in a denial of the full rights and subjectivity of women. But again, in responding to these genuine concerns we want to be faithful to the revelation of God in Christ – faithful to the God who is revealed in a special way in the person and story of Jesus Christ. To depart from that narrative, to depart from Jesus Christ, is to depart from the heart and soul of Christian faith, of our faith.
Perhaps a good way to begin in responding to these concerns about the fatherhood of God is by reminding ourselves that regardless of our identification of God as father, and regardless of our use of masculine pronouns for God (he, him) – God is not a male. God is not a man. Maleness is a physical and biological reality – but God is not a physical or biological being. As we read in the Bible, God is Spirit – which means that God can be neither male nor female. God is neither man nor woman. Our use of masculine language, our identification of God as father, does not change that. Though it is sometimes difficult to do so, we must not let our masculine language for God deceive us into thinking that this means that God is a male or a man – or that the masculine is more valuable.
When we focus on the fact that God is Spirit, something we very quickly discover is that our human language can only go so far in describing this God. When we talk about the God who is Spirit, the God who created our world, the God whose eternal word took on human flesh, we quickly discover that this otherworldly God is beyond our language. Nevertheless, God in his gracious way takes our very limited human language and uses it to give us hints and ideas about who he is. In the Scriptures, then, and above all in the Old Testament, we read what God is like:
God is like a shepherd who leads us.
God is like a mother hen who gathers the chicks under her wings.
God is like rock – sturdy and trustworthy.
God is like a fire that burns away everything that is impure in us.
God is like father teaching his son to walk.
God is like a king.
In scripture human language is deployed in order to give us some vague sense, some hint of what God is like. In fact the language that is used is rich and varied. And it includes masculine and feminine imagery. It includes imagery from every sphere of life. As we walk through our lives, our sometime difficult lives, this rich language helps us understand and relate to the God. We may find support in the realization that God is like a shepherd to us. We may be challenged by the idea that God is like a purifying fire. For those who have had difficult or painful experiences with their father, there may be real comfort in the realization that God is like a mother hen who gathers us under her wings.
But even having said all of this, we come back to the idea of God as father. And what we should see is that, not withstanding this rich and varied language for God, nevertheless the idea of God as Father retains a special place in our Creed and in our faith. Why is this so?
To answer this we notice that the meaning of the Creed’s identification of God as father is only explained in the second section of the Creed. In that second section we read: “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son…” The language of God’s fatherhood retains a central place in our language of faith because of Jesus.
The God who is spirit; the God who creates the world; the God who loves the creation so much, sends the eternal Word into the world to enter our human experience and to redeem it. And what we find in this one who identifies with us so fully, is that he refers to God as his father. But let’s be clear – Jesus doesn’t simply say that God is like a father to him. No, Jesus speaks to God as a father. In entering into solidarity with us, and showing us what it is to be human, Jesus speaks to God and says – my father. In doing so Jesus seems to be pushing beyond mere simile and metaphor – he seems to reach toward a deeper identification of this God who is for us. The church has always understood that there is something decisive about Jesus’ identification of God as his father – to abandon this language is to abandon our faith.
Here we should clarify that the specific word Jesus uses for God is the word Abba – it is the Aramaic word for father. And it is a most personal form of address. It is like Jesus is calling God daddy. This comes out explicitly in Mark’s gospel, where Jesus prays in the Garden: “Abba, my daddy, my father, all things are possible for you; remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.”
Most decisively for us, later in John’s gospel, Jesus appears to Mary in the Garden, and in speaking to her he says: “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” With these words Jesus inducts his followers into the relationship that he has with God, with his heavenly Father – my Father and your Father, my God and your God. And this is why we can cry out, as the Apostle Paul says in his letter to the Romans, to our Abba in heaven – our daddy, our father, in heaven. Our loving and gracious father in heaven.
I neglected this week to include a question from the new Presbyterian Catechism in the bulletin – but question 13 reads as follows: “Why do we call God ‘the father’?” And the answer: “First and foremost, the word ‘Father’ identifies God as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In calling God ‘my Father and your Father’, Jesus invites all humanity to acknowledge and to share with him the privilege of being God’s child.”
What we should particularly see in all of this is that to speak of God as Father is to speak in a profoundly personal way. When the language of Father is removed from the lexicon of our faith, as it has been in some churches, it is often replaced with the language of Creator, or with the mere language of God. But the language of Creator, and even the language of ‘God’ cannot bear the personal in the way that the language of Father might bear the personal. To lose the language of Father is in some sense to depersonalize God – to depersonalize our relation to God.
As we work toward a conclusion now, I think it is also important to reflect on words that the Apostle writes in his letter to the Ephesians. Paul says: “I bow my knees before the Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth takes its name.” What is implied in these words of the Apostle is that if we really want to know what fatherhood is and what fatherhood looks like, we should look to God – if we want to know what fatherhood is we must look to the God who embraces us and loves us and forgives us and saves us. Yes, who disciplines us and challenges us. But this is to say that we should not look to our human fathers to know what fatherhood should first and finally looks like – rather, we look to the heavenly father (who, we remember, is not male or man).
A friend of mine within the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Rev. Karla Wubbenhorst offers some words that summarize well the relation between the earthly father and the heavenly father. She writes: “Some of us have known the provision and protection, the positive discipline and profound love of a good earthly father, and so we find it easy to trust those qualities in a heavenly father…
Others of us will know the goodness of our heavenly father as all the more precious, because we have never known goodness in an earthly father, and we have at last found a way of supplanting that earthly father, who was nothing but bad news, with the greatest of good news.”
Karla is suggesting that if our earthly fathers have only been a source of grief and pain to us – there is nonetheless a genuine and loving Father to whom we may turn. Our Father in heaven – who is love, forgiveness, strength, grace, warmth.
We conclude with this summary: Our God – the God who is not male or masculine; the God who is Spirit; the God to whom Jesus prayed – our God is a heavenly father to each of us.
Jesus said, I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.